What’s the best thing a dad can do for his daughter?

Writing a best selling book about the lessons Fathers give their daughters was made difficult only in the sense that I had no experience raising daughters myself. I have two sons. I remember remarking to my wife, oh, maybe 2000 times, “Thank God they aren’t girls. This is all the drama I can stand.”  After interviewing countless dads of daughters, I’m not sure I’m ready to move off that position.

I always thought dads of daughters were like appointed in heaven to serve a difficult mission. “And you Frank, you’re going to have three girls. Two are going to be beautiful and think they’re ugly, one is going to dumb as a box of rocks and thinks she knows everything, one is going to look like you, one is going to be boy crazy at ten, one is going to be feminist, one is going to think you’re the smartest man in the world, two are going to think you should be institutionalized when their 12, two will not speak to their mother throughout their junior high years, one will date a boy just like you so you will never trust him, one will date all through high school and you’ll be worried sick about her, one will never date in high school and you’ll be worried sick about her, one will hang out with a group of boys who appear to be parentless, one will have a full ride to college but quit after a year and then go to six colleges that you have to pay for, oh, and their clothes will be equal to that of a house payment every month. A nice house. Have fun.”

So interviewing these dads was a revelation.  Since I have no daughters, I was looking for answers. I probably talked to forty or fifty dads all told, but there were five or six that I spent a great deal of time with. I would call their daughters “successful.”  At the time, one was a scholarship student at Vanderbilt, another had a full ride at Texas A&M. Another was a woman whose father was Jewish and mother was Catholic and she was excelling at a Jesuit University.  There were successful athletes, successful scholars, successful musicians, but more important, they were what I judged to be successful daughters. If I had a daughter, it was these girls lives’ that I would certainly aim for.  That’s why I interviewed their fathers.  I wanted to know about these dads. What made them tick. How in this age of sex and drugs and rock and roll and Brittany Spears and self indulgence and attitudes and $500 purses for teenage girls, how did a dad raise a daughter you didn’t hate being around.

But I didn’t just talk to success stories. I interviewed a divorced dad who had a thirty year old daughter and a two-year old girl. His comments were  fascinating because there is no doubt in my mind he is spending more time with his two year old than he ever did with his thirty year old. I also talked to dads who daughters were, well, I wouldn’t have them.

And I realized after a while, I wouldn’t have their fathers as dads either. Then there were the dads who seem to occupy a new role in American fatherhood – lets call them the “abused dads.”  They had so lost their ability to define and hold onto their boundaries  that one of them, who had a successful career, was reduced to him and his working  wife sharing one car because their 22 year old daughter had blown through so many colleges, cars, jobs, counselors and hospital stays that they could barely make ends meet. And the daughter was now living at home, driving her own car they had paid for. He had all the love in the world for his daughter, but jeez, you just wanted to shake  him and yell “Get a grip! She’s twenty freaking two!”

So what made a difference? Why were the girls who were doing well in life doing well?

Why were the girls who were going down the toilet circling the drain?

Dads themselves couldn’t agree with each other. One dad talked about how he combed his daughter’s hair every day, even through her sophomore year in high school. Another dad thought that was the dumbest idea he ever heard and took a red pencil and scratched it out of my rough draft.  One thought sports for girls was the greatest idea since sliced bread, another dad couldn’t believe how anyone would associate sports with excellence.  One dad hauled his daughter to church every week and plopped her in youth groups every Wednesday, another dad was stunned when his daughter told him she was marrying a missionary.

This is not a scientific survey, but I’ll stand on it. The men of the successful daughters first off, acted like men, secondly were around, and third, loved their daughters more than anything in the world. But number one, they were men. They didn’t act weak or wimpy when it came to making difficult decisions. They had no compunction about laying down rules, dress codes, study hours, grade requirements, behavior policies.  They stood up to a sympathetic mother. They brooked absolutely no back talk, language or arrogance from their daughter. They stood up for teachers, they let boyfriends know really bad things would happen to them if something happened to their daughter, they demanded the best out of their daughters  - and wonder of wonders, they got it.  Their daughters were actually afraid of their fathers’ wrath. This turned out to be a good thing. This is not to say the teenage years were idyllic walks in the park, no -  these girls still went through emotional turmoil during middle school years and exacted their wrath on the whole family. But they knew there was a limit, a line that couldn’t be crossed. Because dad was there, eyeballing the whole thing, waiting to come unspun. And when these girls became adults, they were respectful of other people, respectful of older people, showed a level of maturity not found in most young women.

The fact is, a weak dad is better, but not much better, than no dad at all. So the question isn’t “What’s wrong with young women today?”  Rather, it’s what’s wrong with their fathers. Why aren’t they acting like men?”

It’s just more evidence it’s tough being a dad. In fact, it’s a man’s job. 


Harry H Harrison Jr. is a NYTIMES best selling parenting author with over 3.5 million books in print. He has been interviewed on over 25 television programs, and featured in over 75 local and national radio stations including NPR. His books are available in over thirty-five countries throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Norway, South America, China, Saudi Arabia and in the Far East. For more information visit www.fearlessparenting.com.

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